Wealden council leader defends costs of legal challenge

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The leader of Wealden District Council has rejected calls to apologise for the legal costs of a controversial planning challenge.

At a full council meeting on Wednesday (November 21), Wealden Independent councillor Greg Rose called on Conservative council leader Bob Standley to apologise for the costs of legal action connected to the Steel Cross development in Crowborough.

The proposals – to build 103 homes – have been subject to a long-running legal battle between developers Knight Developments Ltd and Wealden planners, appearing most recently at the Court of Appeal in January 2017.

Despite this long legal history, Wealden’s new draft local plan now puts the controversial site within the town’s development boundaries. In light of this developers, have submitted a new application to build on the site.

At Wednesday’s meeting, Cllr Rose said: “I was shocked to discover that although the council won the case the net loss of taxpayers money, after costs awarded, was in excess of £180,000.

“What makes this even more shocking is that this site was subsequently included within the development boundary for Crowborough, in the new draft local plan and [is] earmarked for development.

“Why on earth did the council defend this case so vigorously only for it to be slipped into the plan?

“And why, at no point, was full council overtly told about this huge loss of money, despite the fact that the defense of the case was being fanfared at nearly every full council during that period.

“Will the leader apologise to the residents of Wealden for this gross waste of public money?”

In response, Conservative council leader Bob Standley said: “No, I won’t apologise. We will defend the decisions of planning committees.

“Planning is a moving target and we all know that defending these cases is very expensive,  but we will always those decisions.

“If at a later date it goes into a plan, that is just the way the planning system works. You can shake your head Cllr Rose, but that is the way it works.”

Cllr Rose had also asked Cllr Ann Newton, the cabinet’s planning lead, why there had been ‘a U-turn’  by including the site within Crowborough’s development boundary.

Cllr Newtown said: “When we made the decision to do what we did with with Steel Cross, we had to do that in defence of our core strategy and the Ashdown Forest. It went backwards and forwards and we won. We were right to do that.

“Unfortunately, we are in a different position now, which I know may not quite seem right.

“I’m not going to comment too much on the application, as I think it is a live application… but to draw the development boundary around it seemed to be the right thing to do. It is now, it wasn’t then.”

For more details on the current application search for reference number WD/2018/2122/MAO on the Wealden planning website.

Huw Oxburgh, Local Democracy Reporting Service